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Book Review: Paper Butterfly by Diane Wei Liang

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The 1989 student movement that ended in blood underlies the cause and effects in this detective novel set in Beijing, China. That year, a 19-year-old student named Lin is condemned to a labor reform camp. Eight years later, he is released and becomes a migrant worker. Meanwhile, private detective Mei Wang, the heroine of the novel, takes on an investigation into the disappearance of a famous pop star, Kaili. When Mei finds a paper butterfly and a stash of old love letters in Kaili's apartment, she feels a historical link between Kaili, the letter writer, and herself. Soon Kaili is found dead, and her boss, who hired Mei for the investigation in the first place, now deploys, without success, all means at his disposal to stop Mei. More paper butterflies appear in a poor neighborhood, where a child also vanishes. With the help of her connections, Mei eventually ties all the ends together and discovers the truth.

This novel is the second of Diane Wei Liang's Mei Wang series that features China's first female private detective. The plot of Paper Butterfly is more gripping than the author's first novel, The Eye of Jade, and there are a number of rural scenes that are rendered quite vividly. Unfortunately, the characterization is weaker. Mei Wang's personality traits, which may have fascinated the reader in the previous novel – her aloofness and distaste for "back doors," her rare courage as a female detective, her conflicting emotions toward her mother – are no longer given enough stage to perform, or develop, in this 224-page thin sequel. As a consequence, Mei Wang's role in Paper Butterfly is not as memorable. Using a political event familiar to Western readers as the plot driver might be a clever idea, but it does not necessarily work well for an uninteresting protagonist.

Contemporary Chinese detective stories are not a new comer in the stage of English literature. Qiu Xiaolong, for example, has successfully portrayed inspector Chen Cao in a series of novels set in Shanghai. Diane Wei Liang's unique angle is the introduction of a female detective, but that uniqueness has yet to be well exploited.

The novel's writing, executed in the author's second language, poses an issue as to how much rendering of foreign-language terminology is too much. The author seems very eager to teach her readers Chinese nouns, as she uses pinyin (the most commonly used romanization system for standard Mandarin) way too frequently. Many of those nouns, such as "hulu," "tufei," etc, are insignificant words in the book which have readily available English equivalents, thus presenting them in Chinese pinyin doesn't seem to serve much of a purpose. A less arbitrary display of Chinese terms might be more effective.

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